Feynman and Twain: How can a scientist appreciate the beauty of a flower, a pilot the beauty of a river?


Mark Twain wrote about how too much knowledge can spoil beauty for a beholder.  In Life on the Mississippi, Twain described how the natural beauty of the river changed for him once he started serious study to be a river pilot.  That wonderful sunset revealed the river was high, hiding objects of danger.  That beautiful little ripple told him a snag waited underwater to pierce his boat.

Cover of "Life on the Mississippi (Signet...

Cover via Amazon

     . . . The face of the water, in time, became a wonderful book — a book that was a dead language to the uneducated passenger, but which told its mind to me without reserve, delivering its most cherished secrets as clearly as if it uttered them with a voice. And it was not a book to be read once and thrown aside, for it had a new story to tell every day. Throughout the long twelve hundred miles there was never a page that was void of interest, never one that you could leave unread without loss, never one that you would want to skip, thinking you could find higher enjoyment in some other thing. There never was so wonderful a book written by man; never one whose interest was so absorbing, so unflagging, so sparkingly renewed with every re-perusal. The passenger who could not read it was charmed with a peculiar sort of faint dimple on its surface (on the rare occasions when he did not overlook it altogether); but to the pilot that was an ITALICIZED passage; indeed, it was more than that, it was a legend of the largest capitals, with a string of shouting exclamation points at the end of it; for it meant that a wreck or a rock was buried there that could tear the life out of the strongest vessel that ever floated. It is the faintest and simplest expression the water ever makes, and the most hideous to a pilot’s eye. In truth, the passenger who could not read this book saw nothing but all manner of pretty pictures in it painted by the sun and shaded by the clouds, whereas to the trained eye these were not pictures at all, but the grimmest and most dead-earnest of reading-matter.

Now when I had mastered the language of this water and had come to know every trifling feature that bordered the great river as familiarly as I knew the letters of the alphabet, I had made a valuable acquisition. But I had lost something, too. I had lost something which could never be restored to me while I lived. All the grace, the beauty, the poetry had gone out of the majestic river! I still keep in mind a certain wonderful sunset which I witnessed when steamboating was new to me. A broad expanse of the river was turned to blood; in the middle distance the red hue brightened into gold, through which a solitary log came floating, black and conspicuous; in one place a long, slanting mark lay sparkling upon the water; in another the surface was broken by boiling, tumbling rings, that were as many-tinted as an opal; where the ruddy flush was faintest, was a smooth spot that was covered with graceful circles and radiating lines, ever so delicately traced; the shore on our left was densely wooded, and the somber shadow that fell from this forest was broken in one place by a long, ruffled trail that shone like silver; and high above the forest wall a clean-stemmed dead tree waved a single leafy bough that glowed like a flame in the unobstructed splendor that was flowing from the sun. There were graceful curves, reflected images, woody heights, soft distances; and over the whole scene, far and near, the dissolving lights drifted steadily, enriching it, every passing moment, with new marvels of coloring.

I stood like one bewitched. I drank it in, in a speechless rapture. The world was new to me, and I had never seen anything like this at home. But as I have said, a day came when I began to cease from noting the glories and the charms which the moon and the sun and the twilight wrought upon the river’s face; another day came when I ceased altogether to note them. Then, if that sunset scene had been repeated, I should have looked upon it without rapture, and should have commented upon it, inwardly, after this fashion: This sun means that we are going to have wind to-morrow; that floating log means that the river is rising, small thanks to it; that slanting mark on the water refers to a bluff reef which is going to kill somebody’s steamboat one of these nights, if it keeps on stretching out like that; those tumbling ‘boils’ show a dissolving bar and a changing channel there; the lines and circles in the slick water over yonder are a warning that that troublesome place is shoaling up dangerously; that silver streak in the shadow of the forest is the ‘break’ from a new snag, and he has located himself in the very best place he could have found to fish for steamboats; that tall dead tree, with a single living branch, is not going to last long, and then how is a body ever going to get through this blind place at night without the friendly old landmark.

No, the romance and the beauty were all gone from the river. All the value any feature of it had for me now was the amount of usefulness it could furnish toward compassing the safe piloting of a steamboat. Since those days, I have pitied doctors from my heart. What does the lovely flush in a beauty’s cheek mean to a doctor but a ‘break’ that ripples above some deadly disease. Are not all her visible charms sown thick with what are to him the signs and symbols of hidden decay? Does he ever see her beauty at all, or doesn’t he simply view her professionally, and comment upon her unwholesome condition all to himself? And doesn’t he sometimes wonder whether he has gained most or lost most by learning his trade?  (From Life on the Mississippi, Chapter 9; from the University of Virginia Library, Electronic Text Center)

Oh, it’s great literature.  But I’ve always been troubled by the anti-science nature of Twain’s complaint, that if you know something really well, you’ll lose respect for its beauty. What better way to discourage a young person from learning science, from learning about the stars, the trees, the rivers and mountains?

It was not so for me. The more I learned about western trees, and grasses and wildflowers, the better I grew to love the dry, hot western desert mountains.  The more I yearned to learn about the geology that carved spectacular canyons and isolated pinyon pines from ponderosa with a sea of sagebrush — and the more I learned, the more I appreciated how delicately balanced the whole thing was.

Then I found Feynman.  He put into a few words what I felt.  He described a continuing discussion he had with artists, about beauty and the relationship of science to the appreciation of it.  He recorded an interview for the BBC in which he reiterated much of the story, with the added advantage of his wry delivery.

I have a friend who’s an artist, and he sometimes takes a view which I don’t agree with. He’ll hold up a flower and say, “Look how beautiful it is,” and I’ll agree. But then he’ll say, “I, as an artist, can see how beautiful a flower is. But you, as a scientist, take it all apart and it becomes dull.” I think he’s kind of nutty. [...] There are all kinds of interesting questions that come from a knowledge of science, which only adds to the excitement and mystery and awe of a flower. It only adds. I don’t understand how it subtracts.  (From What Do You Care What Other People Think? page 28)

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5 Responses to Feynman and Twain: How can a scientist appreciate the beauty of a flower, a pilot the beauty of a river?

  1. […] a year ago I wrote on this issue.  Mark Twain said no; Richard Feynman says yes, and the scientist appreciates the beauty […]

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  2. [...] makes it more beautiful, and more charming.  This near-refutation of Mark Twain‘s philosophy of learning from Life on the Mississippi opened a new genre of literature that is non-fictional and floridly descriptive, but readable and [...]

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  3. Ed Darrell says:

    Didn’t know about that book, Rob. Thanks! The Da Vinci piece is one I’ve heard about a lot, but never had the time to track down — probably worth the price of the book just for that.

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  4. Rob Lopresti says:

    Good piece. I remember that passage by Twain well (and come to think of it, those who attempt to write literature can suffer the same excess familiarity with their material that he complains about). But if you haven’t read the book Galileo’s Commandment by Edmund Blair Bolles, you should. It is an anthology of great writing by scientists. The piece by Da Vinci, for example, musing on sea fossils found on a mountain top, is unforgettable.

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  5. Barbara says:

    I totally agree! I’ve seen beauty in places, and at scales, that I’d never have seen without studying science. Knowing what’s going on beneath the obvious only adds to the beauty.

    However, due to my scientific knowledge I’ve also experienced sorrow other may miss — the neatly trimmed field edge where Blue Grosbeaks used to nest in brush, the attractive greenery that is invading the ecosystem and extirpating native plants, the elegant doves as invasive as rats.

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